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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Omar Thomas: Sparking musical representation and revolution one composition at a time

Three radical pieces to listen to as Black History Month comes to a close
Omar Thomas: Sparking musical representation and revolution one composition at a time
Omar Thomas’ UTexas Profile Page

Ambitious. Influential. Revolutionary. Musician and composer Omar Thomas is a man whose stylistic compositions illustrate the stories of humanity that demand to be heard.

Born on Feb. 27, 1982 in Brooklyn, New York to Guyanese parents, Thomas’ musical influence began at a young age. He picked up the trombone in the fourth grade. Eighth grade would mark the beginning of Thomas’ composing career, an era that would come to regard him as one of the most prominent contemporary composers of the 21st century. As he built upon his musical involvements, he joined his high school’s marching band and choir.

Thomas attended James Madison University, graduating in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in music education. In 2006, he moved to Boston to pursue a master’s degree in jazz composition at the New England Conservatory of Music.

He recalls American jazz composers Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn as two musicians who forged his musical individuality into what it is today. “They were always searching for something; they had really deep and unique things happening orchestrally that were just decades ahead of their time,” Thomas expressed in an interview with Yamaha. “It just seemed like there was such a positive spirit about who they were and the situations in which they’d put themselves, even though they had to deal with a segregated country.”

At 23, he accepted a position at the Berklee College of Music, where he worked as an assistant professor of harmony. Soon after, he began teaching at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Currently, Thomas is a Yamaha master educator and works as an assistant professor of composition and jazz studies at the University of Texas.

Thomas was awarded the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award in 2008 and named Boston Music Award’s “Jazz Artist of the Year” in 2012. Most recently, and historically, he was honored the 2019 William D. Revelli Award by the National Band Association for his most well-known composition, “Come Sunday.” In the 42-year history of this event, Thomas became the first Black composer to ever receive the award.

Thomas’ tenure composing music spans nearly 20 works, many of which shed light on Black American culture, the LGBTQ movement and historical figures whose lives deserve to be remembered and cherished. Below are three of his most famous works: “Come Sunday,” “Of Our New Day Begun” and “A Mother of a Revolution!”

“Come Sunday”

“Come Sunday” (2018) is regarded as one of Omar Thomas’ most famous pieces. Written as a nod to Duke Ellington, the composition has soulful, gospel-like melodies. The two-part composition is meant to reflect the nature of Black worship services, with Thomas composing each part to resemble one of the most fundamental parts of these worships: the Hammond organ.

“There’s this long tradition of sacred music that exists for wind ensemble. None of it was told from the Black church perspective, which is mind-blowing to me,” Thomas said in an interview with Illinois State University WGLT. “I said, I’m going to write this thing just because nobody else has done it.”

Beginning with Movement I. “Testimony,” Thomas explains how this piece is meant to prepare the congregation to “receive The Word via a magical union of Bach, blues, jazz and R&B.”

A single saxophone pierces the air with a vibrato-heavy melody that stirs through the imaginary congregation. Although full of starts and pauses, the piece progresses steadily throughout. Expressive harmonies and syncopated swung rhythms contribute to the overall build-up of the music.

In Movement II. “Shout!” Thomas writes how his aim for this portion was to create a “virtuosic celebration – the frenzied and joyous climactic moments when The Spirit has taken over the service.”

Exuberant, fast lines combined with clapping from the percussion section add to the praise session-like nature of the piece. Mimicking a huge jazz band, each section of the band harbors their own complex solo that highlights their presence amidst the symphony of noise.

The expressive melodic lines highlight a certain longing underneath the noise, paving the way for the celebratory worship Thomas intended. The ecstatic nature of the second movement connects that yearning with religion and blues. In a way, this piece feels like a tribute to life.

“Of Our New Day Begun”

“Of Our New Day Begun” (2015) was written to commemorate the nine Black individuals who were killed during the racially motivated terrorist attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina.

“My greatest challenge in creating this work was walking the fine line between reverence for the victims and their families, and honoring my strong, bitter feelings towards both the perpetrator and the segments of our society that continue to create people like him,” Thomas describes.

He begins the piece with a dirge, full of solemn, sustained pitches and a slightly eerie bassoon line. As the meter shifts inconsistently, the rest of the ensemble grows in power before receding.

Church is often seen as a place of refuge, which Thomas seeks to display through the incorporation of motifs from the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James and John Johnson, also known as the “Black National Anthem.” Within this song are the lyrics, “Facing the rising sun / of our new day begun / let us march on till victory is won.”

In lieu of writing a completely grave piece, Thomas took these lyrics to heart, building upon dominant chords, authentic singing and a change in key. Melodies that were once soft, begin to make themselves known as the ensemble grows stronger to articulate the impact the victims of the Charleston shooting left on those around them. Soon, stomping footsteps crescendo louder and louder.

“This will not defeat us, nor will it define us,” is the resilient message Thomas seeks to emphasize throughout the duration of the piece. This message brings about one of the central themes in Thomas’ works: the need for equality between all people, regardless of race. Thomas states, “I don’t believe that music just breaks down barriers; I believe that music phases through barriers as if the barriers are not even there.”

“A Mother of a Revolution!”

In “A Mother of a Revolution!” (2019), Thomas focuses on the life of Marsha P. Johnson, also named Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson. Johnson was an influential figure in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 and was an AIDS and LGBTQ rights activist.

“Existing as a trans woman, especially a trans woman of color, and daring to live authentically, creating space for oneself in a transphobic world is one of the bravest acts I can imagine,” Thomas says. He desired to write a piece accentuating the struggles and triumphs Johnson endured, as well as pay tribute to the lives of LGBTQ individuals across the globe. “We pump our fists to honor the life, heroism, activism and bravery of Marsha P. Johnson, to honor the legacy of the Stonewall revolution, to honor the memory of the trans lives violently ended due to fear and hatred, and in honor of trans women worldwide who continue to exist unapologetically and demand to be seen,” writes Thomas.

Beginning with a steady bass line, the trombones’ growing presence cannot be ignored. The piece’s underlying motif finds itself passed across different sections. Unfaltering woodwind rhythms persist underneath the cacophony of noise that rises in both tempo and volume like a revolution brimming with anticipation. The drums, which come into play towards the second half of the piece, create a disco atmosphere intended to honor the club culture cultivated by the LGBTQ community. Every so often, the melody will drop and crescendo to a louder sound. Eventually, every instrument in the ensemble comes together in unison to hit the same piercing notes, again and again.

When reflecting  on the life Omar Thomas has lived thus far, there is no doubt he possesses an innate musical spark capable of bringing more representation and revolutionizing the world of music composition. He seeks, time and again, to encompass the nature of Black American culture and transform single musical ideas into a conglomeration of identity, culture and community. The complex pieces he writes stand their ground and will continue to play a dominant role in shaping how music is both performed and perceived. To this, Thomas exclaims, “To all the Black musicians in wind ensemble who were given opportunity after opportunity to celebrate everyone else’s music but our own – I see you and I am you. This one’s for the culture!”

Erineah Quan can be reached at [email protected]

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